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2005 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 10, No. 2
April 2005

Crafting a Safe, Family-Centered Response to Meth

Recently Chad Slagle, a North Carolina CPS worker from a county affected by meth, travelled to a national conference about the drug. Although the event taught him some useful things, there was one “lesson” he made a conscious decision not to take back home.

According to Slagle, most of the child welfare professionals from other states he spoke with said they don’t attempt to keep the family together or reunify them when they find children in a meth lab. “They go straight for TPR (termination of parental rights),” he says.

Despite having seen firsthand the terrible effects meth has had in his own community, Slagle was appalled. He says, “My response to this was, ‘We’re not doing this.’ Kids deserve their families. Families deserve more.”

The state of North Carolina strongly agrees. As it clearly expresses in its children’s services policy, North Carolina believes that although the safety of the child is always our first concern, the presence of meth use or a meth lab should be a signal to agencies to conduct a thorough, strengths-based assessment and to make a robust attempt to ensure family members receive the treatment and support they need to stay together or to reunify if at all possible.

As a practice community we are in the process of trying to understand exactly how to do this. It is an incremental journey that is happening county by county, worker by worker, family by family. As you and your agency participate in this effort there are guidelines that you can follow. A good jumping off place is North Carolina’s new drug endangered child policy, which can be found at <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/>.

We hope the suggestions below, which are drawn from our discussions with practitioners and a review of the literature on meth and child welfare, are also useful to you as you work to protect and support families struggling with meth.

Suggestions for Child Welfare Practice

Safety. Know about the dangers posed by meth use and meth labs. Knowing how to recognize the signs of meth intoxication is important, since it is linked to violent and unpredictable behavior. Follow your agency’s safety protocols. Never do anything to endanger yourself or others.

Family Engagement. Attempts to join with meth-involved parents can be frustrating. Because the drug heightens energy and inflates self-esteem, some meth users feel so “on top of the world” that they are genuinely unable to see any reason for DSS involvement with their family. Yet it is important to avoid pre-judging or demonizing meth users. Assess each family individually. Families involved with meth also have strengths. Help the family find these and build on them.

Case Decisions. Parental substance abuse alone does not constitute child maltreatment. When substantiating or finding a family in need of services, it is important to fully document the negative impact of parental behaviors on the children.

Collaboration. Collaborate with law enforcement by reporting suspected meth use and by jointly approaching families when meth use is known. A close working relationship with substance abuse, medical, and mental health professionals will help you support families. If your community doesn’t have an active Drug Endangered Child task force, start one. If it does, join it.

Placement. Placement in foster care should never be automatic, even in the case of a lab. Thoroughly assess kin and others before placing children: meth use is sometimes a problem for extended families. Consulting with law enforcement can help prevent risky placements. NCDSS drug endangered child policy contains a useful guide for preparing resource families.

In-home Services. Effective addiction treatment is essential. Identify and or/help develop meth treatment resources in your community. Develop realistic plans with families, plans that can accommodate episodes of relapse.

Court. To respond effectively to meth, child welfare agencies need to have access to experts (toxicologists, chemists, chemistry professors) who can testify in court for them. Meth cases typically require more preliminary preparation.

Permanence. Because of the time needed to recover from intense, sustained meth use, and because users may be involved with the criminal justice system, it can be a challenge to achieve family reunification for meth-involved families within ASFA timeframes.

Education. Make sure foster parents and other team members are fully informed about meth use. Educate the schools so they will know how to recognize the signs of meth lab exposure in children. Also, thoroughly educate birth families about the effects and dangers of meth use and production. Carefully document that they have received this information. This can enhance child safety after reunification, or it can provide persuasive evidence in court if reunification is not possible.

References for this and other articles in this issue